Alchemy was the science that made these goals seem possible. We think of alchemists as fixated on precious metals, but alchemy overlapped with a field with which we are all familiar – medicine, and the fight to stay alive.
For Dr Jennifer Rampling, from the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, the origins of English alchemy are bound up with beliefs about medicine and disease. Rampling’s research, funded by the Wellcome Trust, takes a long-term view, spanning centuries – from 1300 to 1700 – and tracing the thread of English alchemy through hundreds of texts and manuscripts, taking in medicine, religion and culture.
The four humours
At the start of this period, medicine was still guided by Ancient Greek and Roman notions about the need to balance the body’s four humours – black bile, yellow bile, blood and phlegm. If a person was sick, an ‘imbalance’ of the humours was assumed, and it was the physician’s job to rectify the situation by restoring equality.
“According to conventional academic medicine, illness wasn’t something that invaded your body from outside. Everyone had their own individual ‘complexion’ of humours, and to rebalance this required a more-tailored, systemic healing method,” explained Rampling.
“A common approach was to try and forcibly ‘purge’ excess humours, often considered the cause of illness, in order to rebalance. Bleeding and vomiting were routine forms of treatment.”
Alchemy offered hope
But some diseases did not fit this ancient framework, and when the Black Death ravaged 14th-century Europe, killing tens of thousands regardless of individual complexions, physicians needed a new kind of medicine. Alchemy offered hope for a last-ditch cure.
A new alchemical medicine came into vogue – known as ‘quintessence’ – which went beyond conventional remedies, aspiring instead to the celestial. Made by repeatedly distilling alcohol, quintessence was used to extract essences from plants and metals, particularly gold.
In the medieval world view, the Earth was composed of the four Aristotelian elements: earth, air, fire and water. However, the heavens were made of a perfect, fifth element, immune to change and corruption. For alchemists, their distilled quintessences echoed this heavenly element, offering a potential cure by ejecting imperfection from the body.
“Plague was supposed to kill by poisoning the heart. But these elixirs were so perfect that they couldn’t coexist with poison. The corruption would be literally forced out of the body – restoring the balance of health.”
Chemical medicine began to catch on. Today, we aim for medication without violent side-effects. But in early modern England, the fact that powerful bodily reactions could be produced by ingesting tiny amounts of a chemical substance was seen as hugely impressive.
“Patients often welcomed strong, physical reactions to remedies – such as antimony compounds, which make you projectile vomit – because they saw them as indicators of effectiveness; perhaps that some blockage was being cleared,” said Rampling. “If you think of your body as a sack of fluid humours, you will probably want to see, and feel, movement.”
The vegetable stone
But if such concoctions could transform the flesh, why not metals as well? Rampling talks of ‘slippage’ between medical and metallurgical alchemy, and the most sought- after elixirs – such as the ‘vegetable stone’, a focus of her research – were believed to both heal sickness and transmute metals, purging impurity to leave only perfection.
Rampling has been in the lab with Dr Peter Wothers, from the Department of Chemistry, attempting to decipher an encrypted recipe for the vegetable stone by 15th-century alchemist George Ripley, perhaps the most influential of all English alchemists.
“If you distil vinegar several times, you can use it to dissolve lead. That results in a gum that Ripley called the ‘Green Lion’, but that modern chemists would think of as lead acetate,” explained Rampling. “Distil this, and a white smoke is produced which – if you collect and condense it – forms a clear fluid. Ripley thought this ‘menstruum’ was the basis for the vegetable stone.” But the recipe fades into opacity as the alchemist’s language becomes increasingly enigmatic.
Alchemical practices and ingredients were often concealed using symbolic, riddling language, enticing with their hint of otherworldly secrets, but ultimately difficult to decipher. This language is magnificently displayed in the ‘Ripley Scrolls’ – emblematic scrolls full of dazzling imagery, depicting dragons, angels, turrets in the clouds and giant droplets of blood.
These scrolls baffle at every level. The design is probably not by Ripley at all – it was attributed to him after his death, when his fame had spread. Their meaning was also subject to distortion over time. For 300 years, copyists emphasised different aspects of the scrolls’ imagery, struggling to make sense of their source.
Knowledge is power
Such eye-catching manuscripts offered alchemical practitioners one way of marketing their expertise. Knowledge is power, and the natural and medical knowledge promised by alchemical treatises could be used as a bartering chip for social mobility by those who claimed to be its gatekeepers.
“A lot of the alchemists’ rhetoric is about protecting the secret: knowledge that is too dangerous to fall into the hands of the ignorant or rapacious,” said Rampling. “In reality, they had to be discreet with this knowledge, since it was their livelihood.
“Practitioners could use this knowledge to win the patronage of princes and nobles, by dangling the possibility of long life, riches and secret wisdom. The imagery of the Ripley Scrolls refers to medicine as well as transmutation – all in a very glamorous package.”
Earth lacked the unchanging perfection of the heavens
Besides prolonged life and wealth, alchemy also offered insight into the secrets of nature, and even divine power. In Aristotelian cosmology, the Earth itself was flawed as it lacked the unchanging perfection of the heavens. As Rampling points out, this model “mapped very nicely” onto a Christian theology that viewed the natural world as damaged by original sin: “If nature was poisoned by the Fall, then alchemy promised to redeem it. It’s no coincidence that the Ripley Scroll (pictured) shows the Garden of Eden.”
By generating perfection on Earth, alchemists could claim they were doing God’s work. The quest for the perfect elixir, able to purge both man and metal, had a powerful apocalyptic resonance.
Surviving Judgement Day
For hundreds of years, Christian prophets claimed that the end of the world was close. On Judgement Day, God was expected to ‘purify’ the Earth with divine fire – only the perfect could survive. Some alchemists argued that the possessor of the elixir would play an important role. This idea resurfaced in Elizabethan England, and was presented to Queen Elizabeth I a number of times.
But corruption and redemption were also allegories for material processes. Tellingly, the Scroll’s Adam and Eve are not eating the biblical apple, but bunches of grapes. Rampling has an answer: “Wine made from grapes produces both vinegar and the quintessence – key ingredients of the vegetable stone.”
For all its striving for perfection, alchemy remained grounded in the physical, requiring its practitioners to get their hands dirty. For Rampling, there is a romance in the alchemists’ relationship with the world, one we have perhaps lost.
“These people knew materials in an intimate way – they would taste them, smell them, listen to them. There are lots of descriptions in manuscripts of substances making cracking sounds, or producing a heavenly odour or bitter taste. Alchemists were early explorers of the material world. With only their senses and imagination to guide them, they had to be attuned to the slightest variation.”
Past Horizons. 2012. “Body, soul and gold: quests for perfection in English alchemy”. Past Horizons. Posted: November 11, 2012. Available online: http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/11/2012/body-soul-and-gold-quests-for-perfection-in-english-alchemy